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Will the Democratic Party Listen to its Populist Wing?

By Katelyn Johnson and Jonathan Westin

As establishment favorite Rahm Emanuel fights desperately for his political survival against a less well-known progressive populist candidate, could the same thing happen to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary?

With standard-bearers like Senator Elizabeth Warren, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Jesús “Chuy” García tackling inequality and Wall Street greed, the resurgent progressive populist wing of the Democratic Party is growing stronger, setting an example for fellow Democrats looking for an electoral playbook and posing the question of whether Warren might play a similar role in a presidential race.

Chuy’s electoral rise in Chicago has stunned the political establishment, but not those in the progressive movement who have long seen the power of blunt honesty about the problems in our society and the solutions that are so badly needed.

In Elizabeth Warren’s words, “People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: they’re right. Oil companies guzzle down billions in profits. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. And Wall Street CEOs, the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs, still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them. Does anyone have a problem with that? Well I do.”

Chuy taps similar themes in talking about how Chicago under Rahm Emanuel “has worked for the benefit of a select few.”

He continues, “It’s become clear to people that cities in America cannot be good places to raise families as long as inequality continues to undermine working people and the middle class, and that leaves the poor behind. They want a course that is more equitable, that is sustainable, and one that addresses the daily needs of the families in those cities.”

Both Chuy and Bill de Blasio have called for raising wages to $15 an hour in their cities, so every hardworking citizen can afford to feed her family and pay her rent. Both have run campaigns based on combating inequality, in cities plagued by extreme concentration of wealth.

Both have challenged billionaires and Wall Street. And both have sent their opponents scrambling to find a message that will resonate with voters.

At the national level, there is an urgent need for a debate on these same issues. Wall Street financiers buy political influence with impunity, seeking rollbacks of financial regulations and continuing to siphon wealth from working class communities via predatory loans, foreclosures, low wages, and bailouts. Our democracy is at risk if we do not put a stop to it.

Although no Democrat has yet entered the presidential race, Hillary Clinton’s imminently expected announcement begs the question: Where does she stand on economic inequality, perhaps the dominant political issue of our time?

Will she speak out for a $15-per-hour living wage and union rights? Will she stand strong against bad trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership and against police brutality? Will she fight the corrupting influence of Wall Street banks and other giant corporations trying to use their wealth to buy our political process? Or will her historic ties to Walmart and Wall Street push her to triangulate into a posture that the big banks and wealthy CEOs can live with?

Without doubt, the best way for progressives to make their case is in the context of a vigorously contested presidential primary. Many others, from Robert Reich to Rachel Maddow to the Boston Globe editorial board, have made the case recently that such a contest would benefit and strengthen Clinton’s candidacy, should she turn out to be the Democratic nominee.

Elizabeth Warren is not the only candidate who could ensure a robust presidential primary, but she is the best. She is the one who can truly give Clinton a run for the money and yes, even has a shot to win the nomination.

We urge Warren to acknowledge the importance of this political moment and enter the race. Not because she is one more senator who imagines sitting in the Oval Office. But rather because, like de Blasio and Chuy, and like when Warren herself was reluctantly drafted into the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race, she hears working families crying out for leadership and she realizes this is how she can best make progress in her fight and un-rig the system.

A Warren candidacy would represent the crackle of this new progressive fire that is spreading. She leads with righteous indignation that inspires people to engage with politics and engage with movement building. She represents the type of elected official that working people are demanding. In Chicago, 18 aldermanic races have entered a run-off, and many hinge on candidates’ positions around income inequality and the very values that she champions. More and more every day people are stepping up to wrest control of the democratic process away from the Wall Street, and a Warren candidacy would provide the ultimate confirmation that sometimes, democracy does work for the people.

The populist wing of the Democratic Party is rising, from 42 senators joining Elizabeth Warren in voting to expand Social Security, to Bill de Blasio’s fight to raise wages for working people, to Chuy García’s strong challenge against Rahm Emanuel—which already has to be considered a success, regardless of the results of the runoff. Other Democrats around the country would do well to take heed.

Katelyn Johnson is Executive Director of Action Now in Chicago. Jonathan Westin is Executive Director of New York Communities for Change.

Photo: Eric Allix Rogers